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THE OTTAWA TULIP TREE (Liriodendron tulipifera)

Kenneth Westhues

From the UW Gazette, March 1999. Sources: A. R. Buckley, Trees and Shrubs of the Dominion Arboretum (Canadian Government Publishing Centre, 1980), and a personal visit to the tree in 1998.

For strengthening my students' courage, I often tell them the true story of the tulip tree in the Dominion Arboretum in Ottawa.

The native range of the tulip tree, a species of the Carolinian forest, extends as far north as the Niagara peninsula and lower Grand River valley. There are tall, broad specimens in the park alongside Niagara Falls. They are spectacular in flower. The leaves by themselves are interesting, each one appearing to have been chopped off square.

In 1897, a tulip tree seedling was planted in the national arboretum, then just being established. As the gardeners feared, the tree was frozen off to the ground the next winter. Ottawa's climate is too cold for the species.

This particular tree's roots survived, however, and in the spring of 1898, sent up a new sprout. A few months later, this sprout, too, was winterkilled.

So it went for the next twenty years. The tree would grow anew every spring, but die back to the roots before the next spring's thaw.

Then came the winter of 1920-21. For whatever reason, perhaps abnormally mild temperatures or less wind, the sprout from the previous spring was not killed off. It survived and grew taller the next summer. It has never looked back.

If you visit the Dominion Arboretum a couple of months from now, you can see that same tulip tree, 102 years old, in glorious full bloom. It soars skyward fifty feet, high enough for a crows' nest.

Back in 1910 or 1920, who would have predicted the triumph of that Ottawa tulip tree?